Tina Packer is well known to New England audiences as an innovative director, inspirational educator, and vibrant upholder of a theater that has nothing to do with dead white poets and everything to do with "raising the intensity of the theatrical experience".
As artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, based in Lenox, Massachusetts, Packer has introduced a generation of actors and theatergoers to the passion, violence, joy, and visceral world of Shakespeare's language in action. Together with a team of master teachers that either helped found the company or who have been trained in its unique vision and precepts, Packer has built the company into one of the largest outdoor Shakespeare festivals in North America. Its educational outreach programs have won national acclaim and are being replicated widely using the Shakespeare & Company "model," often under the tutelage of the group' gifted actor/educators. Even the company's collaborative management practices--in which every member has a voice in the decision-making process--now are meriting study by business schools and organizations alike.
An articulate and distinctive figure in what had never before been considered a theatrical niche industry, Packer has recently been the subject of a book--"The Company She Keeps" by Helen Epstein, and a WGBH documentary, "Sex, Violence, and Poetry: A Portrait of Tina Packer". Such a portrait, of course, has to take on many colors, since the list of plays Packer has either directed or acted in would fill more than two pages (very small type, single-spaced), while her record for grant-getting and honorary degrees and awards is unbeatable.
Recognition is great, of course, and Packer received it early when she received the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts' Ronson Award for Most Outstanding Performer. But to this extraordinary actress/director/educator/writer, the recognition has never been as important as The Work. And her journey toward The Work began with one word: Frustration.
In the early 1970's, and armed with a wide-ranging intellect unsuited to meekly following a theatrical party line, Packer found herself at an impasse in a "traditional but good" British acting career that paid the bills but lacked satisfaction. "I felt that my voice always had to be a muted one," Packer says. "I had certain perceptions--or what I would now regard as insights--about what should be happening on stage. But my perceptions were either too much or they had no resonance with the directors I worked with--or it felt like that to me. My own exploration was always severely limited."
Turning to directing in the hopes of finding personal direction, Packer left acting for a time and went to work at the London Academy of Dramatic Art, where she proceeded to direct 12 plays in two years. "What I was looking for was raising the intensity of the [theatrical] experience...then I realized that the intensity of the experience really lived in the language. I started getting really interested in the voice and what happens to the voice and all its components."
In working at LAMDA with master fight choreographer B.H. Barry, Packer then made another discovery: "there was something that changed in the energy of theatrical experience when you added fight, and the energy that the good fighter needed was the energy a good actor needed." Dance, Packer found, had much the same effect, in "always lifting the energy of the actors". By this time, Packer was becoming more and more "passionate about the actor/audience relationship" and its own unique flow of energy.
With little fundraising experience and the sketchiest of contacts, Packer boldly approached the Ford Foundation for a grant and walked away with $142,000--a testament to her passion, vision, persuasiveness and fearlessness of risk, and to a willingness to surrender her life to an all-out involvement in her artistic goals. A lesser academic, or a lesser performer, might have been content merely to study Shakespeare's depths-of-humanity universe from within the safe, dusty confines of academia, but not Packer.
Still, that level of risk requires balancing financial stability with the wiles of artistic exploration and, unfortunately, Packer became so deeply immersed in her first real chance to explore her vision of the artistic process that that first company flamed-out--painfully. "The inspirational part--the work--worked, but the execution was wanting," she says, succinctly. "We knew nothing about administration, meetings, or [group] dynamics."
No one was surprised, however, that Packer wasn't down for long. With the help of Mitch Berenson, the organization now known as Shakespeare and Company took possession of novelist Edith Wharton's then-derelict mansion in Lenox in 1976. In addition, Packer original cadre of teachers were subsequently joined by a list of founders that still include Packer's husband, Dennis Krausnick (Director of Training), Kevin Coleman (Director of Education), Tony Simotes (Master Fight Teacher), and the noted, OBIE-winning actor, Rocco Sisto. This time, it all worked.
"In the first season," Packer remembered, "we all lived communally in the [Wharton] house and got fifty bucks a week. Since the training of actors is what makes the difference in theater, the natural outcome of the training was that you wanted to pass it on. We did our first mailing in November and our first workshop in January." Through a connection with the local high school, Packer says "we realized we had the tools to shift the way Shakespeare was being taught in the schools." A revolution--both theatrical and theoretical--had begun.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Shakespeare & Company is now preparing to move into new quarters in Lenox, this time to the tune of millions of dollars, so it's fair to say that the stakes have been raised yet again. But far from settling into a comfortable President's chair, Packer is already scouting out newer horizons. Besides more teaching, directing, lecturing, writing and acting than seems possible for one human being, she has co-written (with John Whitney) a forthcoming book on business management, published by Simon & Schuster, called "Power Plays: Leadership and Management From William Shakespeare", and a second book is already in the works. As always with this most vibrant and expansive of Shakespeare's ladies, Packer's journey will doubtless be as fascinating as the final outcome.